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Bright outlook for forecasters

Need for meteorologists grows as more firms seek a competitive edge in knowing what weather will be.

Mish Michaels' earliest memory is of looking out the living room window of her Maryland home and seeing the sky turn pea green. Lights began to flicker; her mother started screaming. When she looked out the window she saw white froth and debris flying. She remembers thinking, "Why is the ocean here when it takes us so long to drive there?"

The tornado Michaels saw left damaged buildings, shattered windows, overturned cars, uprooted trees, and a fascinated little girl.

Now, three decades later, Michaels can tell from the light coming through her living room window what the weather is going to be. More people are looking out their windows these days after the most violent Atlantic hurricane season on record.

Michaels, an on-air meteorologist for CBS4 Boston, has maintained a nearly mystical fascination with the weather. It's what brought her to Boston — "the biggest city with the biggest weather challenges in the country," says Michaels. "This is the meteorological Mecca."

But, forecasting the weather has changed. More people want weather reports. Companies rely on forecasts for a competitive edge. Forecasts on TV and radio have gotten longer and more detailed. But less than 10 percent of the nation's 7,000-plus meteorologists are in broadcasting. Most meteorologists work for the federal government or for private firms that supply broadcasters and others with weather information, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The tools they use have evolved from thermometers and weathervanes to satellites, computers, and radar.

More meteorologists, about 850, work in Massachusetts than in any other state. New Hampshire is fourth. The weather report affects everything from kindergarten picnics to air travel to the safety of fishermen.

The National Weather Service, part of the federal government's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, collects much of the raw data for use by others. David Vallee is science and operations officer for the National Weather Service office in Taunton. "We went from 1970s technologies into the 21st century within about two years," he says.

"It was that dramatic and it took place from 1994 to 1998; the radars were implemented and we were all trained. That was a huge leap for this agency," he says. "And it demanded a different background, a more diverse background. It's become a far more diverse field."

Among the new skills are computer programming, graphics, and the ability to write clear reports. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says median income for meteorologists was almost $71,000 last year as a result. The undergraduate meteorology degree often serves as a stepping stone to careers in atmospheric science and other fields.

Vallee says NOAA, which employs about one-quarter of the nation's meteorologists, uses that technology to ''provide base climate numerical weather predication information the private sector meteorologists and broadcasters cannot live without."

One of those private sector companies is Andover-based WSI, which uses National Weather Service data along with other government sources and its own expertise to supply localized forecasts to hundreds of companies and more than half the nation's broadcasters. Beth Krajewski, 27, is a meteorologist in WSI's Meteorological Operations Center. She's also working on her master's at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, which has the oldest meteorology degree program in New England.

"We do so many different types of services at WSI, media, aviation, marine, energy, forecasting. You can be interested in many things," Krajewski says. "The opportunities are really great. If I get interested in forecasting, I don't have to leave the company. I can do that here."

Still, meteorology is a small profession. UMass-Lowell graduates 7 to 12 a year, a number that hasn't changed much in the past 20 years, says Frank Colby, professor of meteorology in the Department of Environmental, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.

Colby says there's "certainly a wider diversity" in opportunities, however. "The percentage of hiring is definitely greater in the private sector."

''There's no question," he says, that the uses of weather data ''have exploded, not only in sports, lightning prediction for golf courses, but also there are now companies that specialize in yacht races. Ten years ago there was nothing like that.''

Keith L. Seitter, executive director of the Boston-based American Meteorological Society, agrees.

"The area of growth has been in the private sector companies for two reasons. One is that these consulting areas have had continual growth,'' he said. ''The other is that we can exploit the forecasting capabilities better now for areas that are weather- and climate-sensitive.

"Some are less obvious. There's a company that makes cushions for lawn chairs. They sell those cushions at Lowe's or Home Depot. They actually hired a consulting firm that gave them the forecast for upcoming weekends. They would use that forecast to predict which of the Lowe's or Home Depots across the country would have nice weather to send cushions. During a crummy weekend nobody would buy them.''

Jim Menard, vice president of meteorology for WSI, says hiring has increased due to more demand for weather services. He says WSI began to expand the size of it's forecasting groups about five years ago when the energy trading market began to grow. More recently WSI added 19 meteorologists to accommodate rapid growth in the aviation sector.

''We are seeing the need for our meteorologists to become experts in certain fields such as air traffic management, media presentations, or energy trading,'' he said. ''Simply providing the most accurate forecast is not sufficient if the information is not relevant or communicated properly to the end user. This has led to more specialization in our forecasting groups. For example, at WSI we have three distinct forecasting groups.''

Robert Thompson, meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service in Taunton, says ''there's no question'' that New England is particularly rich in meteorological resources for a young person to see different facets of the science.

''They can see operations in both the public and private sector, and at the same time work in research at MIT's Lincoln Laboratories or at other research labs in the area,'' he says. ''I would say we have seen much, much more interaction between those who are predominately researchers and operational forecasters over the last 10 to 15 years.''